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Car accident caused by senior driver raises questions

In a society where most adults are fiercely dependent on their cars, it can be hard to tell an elderly parent or friend that perhaps it's time to hang up the keys. Especially for senior citizens with active work and social lives, giving up their independence when driving becomes hazardous for themselves and others isn't a casual decision. But sometimes it's necessary.

Too often this decision is made for them as a result of a car accident. This week five people were hurt when an SUV came crashing through a storefront in Richland Township, Pennsylvania, just outside Johnstown. According to police, the 78-year-old driver mistook the accelerator for the brake while parking outside the dollar store.

Unfortunately, these types of accidents aren't extremely rare, and their possibility increases along with a driver's age. As a result it's important for senior drivers, their families and physicians to be mindful of how the aging process interferes with the ability to safely drive a car. Diminishing eyesight includes a weakening of peripheral vision, which all drivers rely on heavily. As we get older our ability to hear high-pitched sounds begins to go, too, which could prevent us from hearing car horns and sirens on police cars and emergency vehicles.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation allows drivers over 65 to renew their driver's license every two years instead of every four, but this is a voluntary option that doesn't ensure protection against car accidents. That's why it's important for those who care for elderly drivers to have honest, ongoing discussions about their abilities. Rather than simply hiding the keys, family members and physicians should do periodic skill evaluations. These might include hearing and vision exams, or a ride-along to see how a driver handles various traffic situations. If these raise concern, it's time to take the next step.

By law, all physicians who determine that a patient's mental or physical condition could impair the ability to drive must report that patient to PennDOT. Concerned family members can also contact PennDOT, which will then start an evaluation process for that driver. This process can be a literal lifesaver when an elderly driver refuses to stop driving on request. Although most of us don't like the idea of giving up our independence, when our loved ones begin putting their lives and those of others at risk, that hard choice is unavoidable.

Source: YorkDispatch.com, "5 hurt when SUV barrels into western Pa. store," Sept. 7, 2012

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